updated 8/12/2004 12:32:53 PM ET 2004-08-12T16:32:53

Vietnam broadcast a nationwide warning on Thursday about the recurrence of bird flu, saying that three people who died of respiratory illness have been identified as having been infected with the H5 virus.

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The government announcement, issued by Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on state television, did not specify if the deaths were from the H5N1 type of bird flu virus that killed 16 people in Vietnam earlier this year and 8 in Thailand.

“Three deaths have been identified as caused by respiratory illness with virus H5,” the announcement said. It also did not clarify if the three who died were from the four cases that health authorities have been testing for possible bird flu.

If confirmed as the H5N1 strain, the deaths would be the first reported from avian influenza since the disease which swept through Asia was declared quelled by Vietnam at the end of March this year.

The World Health Organization's Vietnam representative Dr. Hans Troedsson told Reuters he was informed of the test result on the the deaths. He said more tests were needed and the WHO was offering to send the samples to its reference laboratories.

“It’s positive for H5, but they (Vietnam) have probably not been able to test further,” he said.

Dung urged the agriculture and health ministries to “proactively take precautions” to prevent the spread of the disease, and said these measures should include the culling of all poultry in any area where the virus is detected.

Deadly mutation possible
A health expert said further tests will likely show the H5N1 type, as that strain is often to fatal to humans. But it is also possible it is another version of H5 that has mutated, he added.

The four suspected victims, who died between July 30 and Aug. 2, were all from the southern province of Hau Giang, around 170 km (106 miles) southwest of Ho Chi Minh City.

Hau Giang is among 11 provinces in southern Vietnam hit by a recurrence of H5N1. About 50,000 poultry have died or been culled in the past month in the south and all poultry in Hau Giang have been ordered culled since the four deaths.

Three of the four suspected victims were a brother, a sister and their cousin and all were from districts where chickens had died from bird flu, state media reported. The homes of the four have been put under quarantine.

All four victims suffered high fever, coughing and hemorrhaging and died within three days, state media reported on Wednesday. The WHO says high fever, coughing, sore throat and sometimes severe respiratory distress are symptoms of avian influenza infection in humans.

Bird flu caused the deaths or culls of millions of poultry in Asia this year, devastating the industries of several countries.

The earlier 24 victims were believed to have caught the disease from close contact with sick birds. There were no confirmed cases of human-to-human transmissions.

Thailand, Vietnam, China and Indonesia reported more cases of bird flu in poultry in past weeks.

On Tuesday, scientists in Hong Kong sounded an alarm after finding that another strain, H9N2, was prevalent in chickens in local markets and could mutate and jump more easily to humans. 

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